Ever wondered what low-budget mainstream American cinema looked like before the teenage-doused, morbidly crude and down right cringe-worthy influence known as the “American Pie” comedy-drama that blossomed in the late 1990’s? Want to see a cast of now mostly forgotten stars in the annuals of time but during the 80’s were at the peak of their fame? Want to see the writer of the original Star Wars trilogy tackle a down-to-Earth comedy that deals with the concepts of loss, age, time and change? Then 1983’s The Big Chill may provide you with the simple human warmth needed to survive in what its advertising campaign described as “a very cold world”.
The Big Chill is a story about character, namely one character; the unseen and quite mysterious Alex (played by a young Kevin Costner, whose face incidentally was cut from the final print of the film) who commits suicide at a vacation house of his best friend Harold (Kevin Kline). What follows is the arrival of old time friends of Alex who gather at the small Bible-belt town of Beaufort, South Carolina for the funeral. In the aftermath Harold and his wife Sarah (Glenn Close) invite their old time university buddies to the vacation house for the weekend. An innocent enough gesture which slowly grows into a new revival of their friendship complete of course with rivalry, resentment, forgiveness and acceptance.
The genius of Kasdan’s vision is in how naturally relaxed and gentle the films narrative passes by. Sequences featuring big stars like Jeff Goldblum, Glenn Close and William Hurt feel like fly-on-the-wall pieces where dialogue, timing and even performance itself appears as very natural, very human moments. The relationships each of these characters have weaved in and out of over the many years since their college days are a joy to listen to as many of the scene’s focus on the reminiscence of the now deceased Alex. What’s more, the way in which this group attempts to relate to each other again after so much time has passed is both quirky and sad as many uncomfortable moments are shared between the cast. The more touching points in the film however are very subtly hidden beneath the superficial dialogue that each character expresses during the many dining room sequences. This is where Kasdan and fellow co-writer Barbara Benedek’s knack for writing really shines out as each actor almost gleefully expresses their clever and often times cynical views.
Upon release The Big Chill was adored by critics and could arguably be considered the movie that started the coming-of-age trend of the 1980’s with “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “The Breakfast Club” following not long after. However the real mastery behind Kasdan’s craft was in how relatable the film would become to its portrayed generation and the generation of others. Kasdan speaks out about how disillusion he and his friends from college days of old became once entering the real, far more “colder” world to what they had imagined. Here in his script we see such realities bearing down on the characters, all struggling to survive and stay upbeat when really each one is clueless as to how best emotionally cope. Some may find Chill an outdated and perhaps even unoriginal comedy, however if you look past its age and conventions which have since been copied to death now you’ll find the real truth behind its humour. Despite my own age the generation I am part of and the ones before it can all relate to simple truth The Big Chill delivers. Whether you like it or not one cannot deny finding such real themes open and honest in what would otherwise be considered an absurd and rather slow comedy. Its perfection lies in how naturally real that slowness and absurdity feels.